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Blue Is the Warmest Color Sex Scene Reminds Everyone of the Time They Just Couldn’t Come No Matter How Hard They Tried

October 25, 2013

It’s a good idea, to portray lesbian love as equal to “heteronormative” love, as Marlow Stern from The Daily Beast called it, the type of love “scene” displayed not the emotion behind it, and have audiences sit through it. Stern describes, in his article, how people got up and walked out halfway through the “love scene,” most frequently at about five minutes into the attempt to orgasm.  While Stern makes the valid point that walking out is disrespectful, it’s an unsupported argument, because if an audience has already walked out, then it’s generally an editorial or directorial failure as opposed to an audience failure for not waiting it out until it gets better. Stern still misses the point that some people may walk out from boredom or disgust, or being a  middle-aged woman (with whom Stern is strangely out of touch) or simply because they are embarrassed to see a scene that is just poorly done:

There were several walkouts at both screenings of the movie I attended—the first in late August at the Telluride Film Festival, and the second at the New York Film Festival earlier this month. They were all, from what I could gather, middle-aged women who bid the film adieu at around the five-minute mark. And Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel upon which the film is based, penned a lengthy screedagainst the sex scene after it screened in Cannes, calling it “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.”

And with its proximal geographic location, Stern links his argument that middle-aged women walked out for the same reason the novel’s author “walked out” of the film production, because it “turned lesbian sex into porn” and therefore made women “feel very ill at ease.” This linkage of a woman’s age with an assumed male interpretation of prudishness misses the point that the scene was just too long for anyone to feel at ease with it, never mind the main argument from a woman’s point of view that the film appears to portray lesbian sex, particularly that lesbian sexuality of a teenaged girl as a mere plaything for the voyeurism of an adult male. Said adult male who appears voyeuristic at best and perverted with a fascination of teenage sex at worst, a form of Lolita, that the movie became the pen of a male pedophile instead of a female love story written by a woman who obviously believed in telling a tale of love between the classes or ages from a purely female perspective.

Perhaps this turning a lesbian sex scene into a scene of pornography is what angered the middle-aged women walking out or angered the author of the novel, not a male-assumed prudishness. Perhaps the middle aged women were lesbians embarrassed at having to sit through the male view of female sexuality and just left because it was unappealing. Marlow Stern lacks any sort of validity for this argument he makes about assuming that women walked out for prudish reasons as opposed to boredom or as a statement to not taking part in blatant male exploitation of teenage sex (the youngest actor being 19).  This area is Stern’s weakest moment in his article, and even he admits that the sex scene itself is too long:

For starters, it does run too long. It’s nothing to walk out over—what a disrespectful, wrongheaded act that is in the presence of such a terrific film. But it could stand to have its running time cut in half. Even if Kechiche’s aim was to challenge the heteronormative way most movie-going audiences process onscreen sexuality by presenting them with seven minutes of sweaty girl-on-girl carnality, which is admirable, it still runs too long. By the fourth minute, you’ll go for your soda; by the fifth, you’ll check your watch; by the sixth, everyone’s eyes will dart around the theater to break the monotony onscreen; and by the seventh, it’s become a farcical tangle of panting and moaning.

Part of the issue that I have grappled with myself, a much more interesting question, I think, is why people don’t like a sex scene that long.  Does its length make it more akin to a porno where someone is charged by the minute and therefore the sexual interaction is exploitive for money? Does adult sex really just take less time, and so a long scene such as that feels inadequate, as if someone has put their worst sexual encounter on display, that time that you can’t come because you are doing something wrong? It’s part of our collective consciousness that when an orgasm lasts that long, we all begin to doubt its sincerity.

It’s not because it’s in a closet at a party, or outside at the beach and  you are inhibited, because the scene takes place on a bed.  Maybe it’s just that it reminds everyone of the time that an orgasm was elusive, and nothing is quite as disappointing as wanting that orgasm so badly that you will never find it, which is often the result of ineptitude of the participants, an very blatant commentary on bad technique or the fact that the partners just aren’t into it, in which case the length of the sex scene is a form of awkward coupling that makes everyone uncomfortable. Who wants to be a part of sex scene in which it’s painful to watch people try to get off? We have that in our daily life through interruptions, bad timing, stomach aches, headaches, etc. Why watch a move about it?

What Stern does do well in his article is to point out that the point of view of the camera is from a voyeuristic perspective, which would normally be the male presence in a totally female sex scene, making the scene more pornographic than universal love material:

The other problem is the way it is staged and lit. Much of the love scene is composed of medium shots, with the camera focused on the two horizontal bodies writhing on a bed. The bodies are seen, as well as the bed and the windows. The bed is essentially acting as the stage, and the women are being presented as spectacle. This, combined with some odd, hazy lighting, lending the proceedings a desaturated sheen that isn’t present anywhere else in the film, proves a puzzling combination. The scene looks—and is staged—like porn circa 1970s.

Point of view is the biggest concern when it comes to the sex scene. Because of the way the shots are composed—from medium shots to close-ups, and always through the point of view of the director—the camera makes the audience assume the perspective of a man, or the “male gaze,” as feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would put it. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” Mulvey wrote in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” her groundbreaking 1975 essay on the subject. “Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” It’s pure voyeurism, or scopophilia. If the POV had shifted from the camera’s to that of the two women—or better yet, switching the POV back-and-forth between each of the two women—then the scene would have been far more effective, and less like exhibitionism.

Point of view is really everything in this scene, because how can one really break down the barrier of recognizing a lesbian sex scene as a love scene unless one is given the perspective of being the lover, otherwise one is simply watching the sex scene rather than being involved in it from a lover’s point of view. If we, as the audience, are to understand a form of love that isn’t depicted frequently, why present that so-called love story from a voyeuristic point of view? It seems as if the director wanted to showcase the novelty of the sex scene between two women, as in, how graphic can we make it (ala porn), as opposed to what it feels like to be a woman in love with another woman and the normalcy or universal quality of love and human sex, regardless of gender, which would require that the audience participate in that scene, not by watching the vagina, because most people can’t experience an orgasm just from looking at a vagina, particularly women. They see vaginas everyday, and nor can a woman having sex with another woman simultaneously have an orgasm given to her by her partner while watching her own vagina, so the point of view is all off. People having sex tend to close their eyes, leaving film narrations of such an event with only the voyeuristic avenue, or look at one another’s eyes. They look at a body part, but facial recognition from the lover’s perspective is huge to the sexual finish, as is scent, sound,tactile sensations, etc.  In large part, the hardest part about creating a sex scene for film that allows the audience to feel as if they are participating is that only two sense are available to stimulate, sound and vision. We, as the audience, can’t smell the scene, touch the other person, or get the sensation, so film is necessarily a substandard medium to express the human orgasm.  That said, it’s not for lack of trying. We seem fascinated with the concept of catching an orgasm on film, sharing it with others, giving it to someone else, or sharing it on a massive scale, as in millions seeing a movie.

For myself, I wonder what it is about the human orgasm that makes it something people want to share or communicate on that level? And if it is to be shared, is that a case where most people allot three minutes for a film version. Is it because we are impatient? Adult sex is not that long? Orgasms should only last thirty seconds or they are fake and so we quickly lose our attention with them? I don’t know what everyone else’s experiences have been, but it seems the collective audience just feels reminded of sexual failures with a scene like this. Notice that the collective audience claps with relief, not exultation, meaning that they feared the orgasm just wasn’t going to happen, and while it would be incredibly brave to present that in a film, that level of bravura has not graced the silver screen:

One of the first dispatches on the film from Cannes, courtesy of New York magazine, claimed, “I clocked the first sex scene between Adèle and Emma — replete with fingering, licking, and, as a friend called it, ‘impressive scissoring’ — at an approximate ten minutes. Audience walkouts began around minute nine. That turned into spontaneous applause (and relieved laughter), when the women climaxed and finished a minute later.”

Maybe it is just a problem with point of view, but it also seems to be a problem with technique, and the glaring fact that the director just doesn’t seem to get female love as female love, existing in his own world in which all female love is just a prelude to male sexuality.  Apparently reviewer Marlow Stern failed to recognize that female moviegoers, those middle aged women who walked out, might have been lesbian women disappointed by a bad sex scene, lumping his own biases into his movie review that seem to reflect the pervasive view that men still don’t understand women’s love.

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